Famous believers

Citing famous intellectuals, in support of religion.

Believers sometimes cite famous, widely-respected names, in support of religion. Such figures include Charles Darwin, C.S. Lewis, Isaac Newton, Francis Collins, Voltaire, and even Galileo and Shakespeare.

These famous people are quoted because:
  • These individuals are widely respected, even today, for their formidable intellect.

  • Intelligent people tend to exercise good judgements in numerous aspects of life, whether in religious matters or scientific.

  • Their contributions to science, literature, or whatever field, are still deeply appreciated today.

  • It seems logical, therefore, that their opinions in religious matters should be highly valued today, just as their contributions to their specialties continue to be.

This train of reasoning is problematic for several reasons.
  1. The amount of knowledge available in the past is less than that which is available to us now.

  2. Intelligent people do not know everything.

  3. The fact that some intellectuals were religious does not mean that all of them are.

  4. If an intelligent person believes something, that does not make it true.
The amount of knowledge available in the past is less than that which is available to us now.
Firstly, intelligent people make judgements as best as they can, based on the information that is available to them at a given point in time.

Notice that many of the commonly-cited examples are of individuals who lived decades, if not centuries ago. They were exceptional because they made discoveries or produced works of a quality that that was beyond the reach of their contemporaries.

It is not the absolute content of their contributions that attests to their brilliance, but the fact that they made those discoveries given their resources.

A student who describes principles in Newtonian physics today is not heaped with accolades, despite the fact that he or she understands the principles thoroughly and the concepts are identical to those proposed by Newton.

This is because the student (presumably) read about these laws in a textbook or learnt them in class, and did not derive them independently of second hand sources.

Individuals who lived even a decade, let alone centuries, ago, did not have access to the principles we are exposed to today. They formed their religious beliefs based on a body of knowledge that was miniscule in proportion to that we have currently amassed. There is no way they could have reached the same conclusions about religion that our most well equipped minds of today have.

The claim that certain religious beliefs should be maintained simply because prominent thinkers of centuries past subscribed to them is absurd and unjustifiable.
Intelligent people do not know everything.
Secondly, people who are known to be intelligent and gifted in certain respects are not necessarily equally well endowed in all other respects.

Certainly, intelligence tends to be correlated across disciplines, for a given individual. This does not by any means guarantee that a person’s superior judgement transfers to all areas. It is perfectly possible for someone to be brilliant in one area and hopeless in another.

Thus, just because we hold someone in high regard for his or her contributions to, say, biological science, does not mean that we have to venerate every statement or belief issued by this person, or refrain from making critical evaluations of other claims.
The fact that some intellectuals were religious does not mean that all of them are.
Thirdly, it is not enough to cherry-pick examples of individuals who are revered for their intelligence and known for an endorsement of religion, nor to rely primarily on anecdotal evidence.

To even begin to make a convincing argument for the existence of a correlation between intelligence level and religiosity, one has to perform a systematic study on a large enough sample of people and measure their intelligence.

One has to count how many people are religious, not religious, undecided, or unwilling to say, and count the number of people from whom data could not be collected, and, finally, check for a relationship between intelligence and religiosity.

A basic study like this might not be terribly informative - after all, what exactly does one mean by the term, ‘religious’?

Is one considered religious if one prays to gods of multiple religions? If one wears a religious symbol? If one attends religious services but does not believe in the existence of God? How would one select a battery of tests to measure ‘intelligence’? How would one select and recruit participants for the study?

To make matters worse, many of these quotes are taken out of context. Galileo, for instance, is sometimes quoted for his affirmation of religion, when, in fact, he was fiercely persecuted by the Church for his discoveries, and forced on pain of death to ‘recant’ his scientific claims in favour of religion and God.
If an intelligent person believes something, that does not make it true.
Fourthly, even if every supremely intelligent person was found to be extremely religious, and every person of borderline intelligence was found to be distinctly non-religious, this does not and cannot constitute evidence that religion and its dictates are true.

Why? Because the fact that intelligent people believe something does not automatically make it true. Similarly, the fact that many people believe something does not make it true.

The fact that many intelligent people believe something also does not prove it is true. Something is only true if it is true- regardless of which, how many, and how strongly people endorse it.

I’m not denying that there often is a correlation between the number of proponents and the veracity of a claim. The key principle here is that sometimes no such relationship exists, and we mustn't over-generalise and apply observations to situations that don't permit such extrapolation.
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